Between the two of them, Shaun and Jamie King have worked in a lot of restaurants: an upscale Japanese restaurant in a Boston luxury apartment building, a seafood destination and barbecue joint in sunny Las Vegas, the illustrious Momofuku. All of these restaurants were attached to massive names, people spotted at Chopped judges’ tables or as talking heads in culinary documentaries — David Chang, Michael Mina, Michael Symon.
Now, after years hopping from city to city, restaurant to restaurant, the Kings don’t want to be the people behind the name anymore. Now, it’s about their name — and what it means in the Portland culinary world. Mere months after moving to Portland to run its buzzy Mikkeller pop-up, the chef and bartender will open their own Southeast Portland restaurant on March 9, the Oregonian first reported.
Bar King won’t be some showy Las Vegas spectacle; still, the Kings have a lot of ideas when it comes to what Bar King is. “Everybody wants to label everything,” Jamie King says. “It’s just not going to fit in one bucket.” Her husband agrees: “That name is two words that really represent what it is: It’s us, and it’s a bar.” It will be casual, they know that, with bar snacks, cocktails, killer Japanese pastries from partner Katherine Benvenuti (formerly of LA’s Sotto), and late-night service. The restaurant will take over the Trifecta Tavern space, which Portland big-name Ken Forkish vacated at the end of the year; they plan to give the space a light makeover, to make it feel a little smaller — think: darker colors, more plants. The restaurant will specialize in smoked proteins; a preview menu included everything from smoked shrimp cocktail with horseradish and lemon to smoked short ribs served ssam style. On the meat-free side of things, that same preview menu included items like a smoked cabbage with bagna cauda.
That same preview menu — which may get some serious tweaks before its opening date — included an array of smaller, snack-sized dishes like hamachi in sorrel and bacon ponzu, as well as gargantuan large-format dishes, including a dry-aged duck breast served with duck confit rice and its gently-fried bones, for gnawing. Still, the menu also stays pretty casual, with things like onion rings served alongside koji bacon ranch — unfussy, a little fun, and just as the chef says: It’s them, with their style of bar food.
Shaun King grew up eating lots of fish. Between the smoked and preserved fish of his mother’s Norwegian heritage and the influence of his stepfather’s years in Japan, King developed a love for seafood and, more generally, food. But it was the culinary traditions of Japan — the simplicity, purity of flavor, and ingredients — that really got him into the restaurant world. “My stepfather trained in Japan as a gymnast,” he remembers. “I was eating natto and tamago from a young age. That flavor profile set me up for adulthood.” By 14, he was training under a former Japanese master chef, soon hopping around California sushi bars and teriyaki shops before moving to Vegas to work for Rick Moonen. “I fell in love with Rick’s style of food,” King remembers. “We developed the sushi bar there together, using Japanese techniques.”
Moonen’s interest in sustainability was a major influence on King, but he was potentially a little late to the game compared to his wife. Jamie King grew up knowing nothing — nothing — should be wasted. It shows in her cocktail style, which often leans on culinary byproduct for infusions, shrubs, and garnishes. “Both of us are really big on minimal waste,” she says. “Each week, I ask Shaun, ‘What are you making? What can I have?’”
The bar vet doesn’t shy away from the savory or the unconventional; her cocktails have involved everything from blackened onion petals to bacon-ponzu fat washes. She has her own impressive resume with her own list of big-name spots, including the Michelin-starred Mourad in San Francisco as well as Las Vegas’ destination bar Velveteen Rabbit and meaty speakeasy Sara’s. The two met in Chicago, where Jamie King was working at a bar a few doors down from a restaurant Shaun was running. The two got together, traveling and landing in restaurants and bars around the country. The desire to move to the Pacific Northwest was twofold: For one, the Kings wanted to find somewhere to settle, enjoy the outdoors, and start a family. But beyond the quiet of the Pacific Northwest, Shaun King felt drawn here thanks to his mother. “My mom lived outside Seattle before she passed,” he says. “Knowing how strongly connected I was to her, and seeing how much she liked it here, it felt right.” Knowing Rick Gencarelli of Lardo and Andy Ricker of Pok Pok from their Las Vegas properties, the chef floated an idea of moving to Portland. They said, “You have to talk to Kurt Huffman.”
Most likely Portland’s largest restaurant group, Chefstable currently operates around 25 restaurants and bars, with locations in Las Vegas and plans to expand into Portland’s suburbs. Its kingpin, Kurt Huffman, has influence throughout the Portland restaurant scene, working with big names like Ricker in the past and current partners like Cathy Whims (Oven & Shaker) and Greg and Gabi Denton (Ox). But in general, Huffman isn’t the front-facing figurehead; he knows that his best skill is finding talent, and making sure that the talent’s businesses operate successfully. Portland restaurants and bars close constantly — Chefstable isn’t immune to that, but Huffman is a master of trying something out, nabbing prime real estate when it becomes available, and swapping out chefs or concepts when the space works but the business doesn’t. So when Huffman stumbled upon the Kings, he knew he hit paydirt.
“Shaun is incredibly high energy... When you talk to him about food, it’s 1,000 ideas a second,” Huffman says. “He brings a level of technique and experience to his cooking that would have him stand out in any city that he went to.” But for Huffman, it wasn’t just their palates, or their talent, or their resume that really sold him; it was their commitment to the actual idea of working. “There are a lot of chefs who want to open a restaurant but don’t want to cook,” he says. “A lot of cooks I talk to have a 10-year plan of wanting to be on a boat somewhere. These guys want to cook... The restaurant isn’t just a means for an escape. That’s what I’m really attracted to: They’re committed to really being a part of Portland.”
Huffman placed the Kings at his Mikkeller pop-up, telling them to get to know the city and begin developing relationships with collaborators and producers. But more importantly, the extra months in Portland allowed them to figure out what the city wanted. “We got to know what Portland likes,” Jamie King says. “Our original restaurant pitch has evolved greatly based on understanding the needs and wants of the public.”
The overarching theme the Kings continue to revisit is less about ingredients, or styles of dishes, or even cuisine — to him, it’s more about technique. “Barbecue is so celebratory, because it takes all this time and energy. When you open up a brisket from its foil, it’s like Christmas,” he says. “We want to get back to this style of food — slow and deliberate.”
Bar King will open March 9 at 726 SE 6th Avenue.
Updated March 4 at 3:34 p.m.
This story has been updated to include the opening date and potential menu items.